Così fan tutte

0545_Despina_revives_Albanians (2)For its second production of the current season, Pittsburgh Opera brought out Mozart’s Così fan tutte last night before a fair-sized, appreciative gathering at the Benedum. The full title of the work, first performed in Vienna in January 1790, is Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (freely translated as “Thus Do All Women, or The School for Lovers” – even though the Italian word for women is nowhere to be found), and is an opera buffa with Mozart’s magical music set to a comic libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had also written the books for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, two of the more enduring and perennial works in the repertories of opera companies the world over. Outside of Vienna, the subject matter was considered rather risqué in the eighteenth century, and the work was slow to spread to other parts of Europe. Così fan tutte was not heard in London until 1811, twenty-one years after its premiere, and did not reach American shores until the Metropolitan Opera Company added it to their roster for the first time in 1922. So the eighteenth century work is comparatively “new” in the United States, not reaching its full stride as a “standard” until after World War II, although Pittsburgh Opera gave it as recently as 2006.

The two acts of the opera concern Ferrando and Guglielmo, young officers, and their respective fiancées, two sisters named Dorabella and Fiordiligi. In a café in Naples (but last night on what appeared to be a beach, real sand and all), the two young men sing of their certainty on the matter of their young ladies’ fidelity, while the older, cynical Don Alfonso claims faithful women are a myth. He bets the two that he needs but a single day to prove their fiancées as fickle as all women. The two accept the wager, and pretend to be called off to war, only to return shortly disguised as two Albanian acquaintances of Don Alfonso and with a plan of each trying to seduce the other’s sweetheart. Ferrando and Guglielmo feign a sad farewell to the brokenhearted Dorabella and Fiordiligi, while Don Alfonso gloats aside that the men are fools to wager money on women.

When Despina, their maid, arrives to ask the sisters why they are so despondent, she mocks them and suggests that they simply find new lovers while their fiancés are away. Don Alfonso, knowing that Ferrando and Guglielmo will shortly return “in disguise” to court the sisters, fears that the equally cynical Despina will see through the ruse, and bribes her to help him win the wager. Shortly the two “Albanians” arrive, claiming love led them to the alarmed sisters, who order the men away, pledging their fidelity to Ferrando and Guglielmo. Before rushing off the scene, the wickedly comic Despina asks Don Alfonso to let her take charge of the plan as the two Albanians rush back on the scene and pretend to poison themselves in despair. Despina returns disguised as a doctor who saves the “dying” men with some sort of “electromagnetic therapy” device. The reviving men, in their fake delirium, beg kisses of the lovely ladies who saved them by finding a doctor. Despite the urging of Don Alfonso and Despina, the sisters refuse.

The second act begins with Despina giving Dorabella and Fiordiligi advice on how to handle – or rather, juggle – men, and before long the sisters agree that a little harmless flirtation with the “Albanians” can’t hurt anything. Just as Ferrando and Guglielmo agreed to target the other’s fiancée, the sisters, in choosing their men, decide on the other’s betrothed. Guglielmo has success in wooing Dorabella, but Fiordiligi stands her ground against Ferrando, even though once he’s left she struggles with her passions. Having been held at bay, Ferrando is convinced that he and Guglielmo have won the bet. The former is happy to hear of his fiancée’s fidelity, but when he shows the latter a portrait locket given to him by Dorabella, the mood changes drastically. Guglielmo now agrees with the Don that women can’t be trusted, and asks the instigator for his share of the winnings, but the Don reminds him that the day is far from over.

Fiordiligi is shocked to learn of her sister’s seduction, but Dorabella protests that “love is a thief who rewards those who obey him.” Fiordiligi decides to head for the front in search of Guglielmo, but Ferrando bursts onto the scene for one last attempt at seducing his friend’s fianceé. This time he succeeds. With both men now furious, Don Alfonso reminds them that they have no one but themselves to blame, because “this is the way women are,” as he warned in the first place. The sisters now agree that the right thing to do is marry the Albanians, and Don Alfonso brings a notary – again, Despina in disguise – to complete the nuptials. Chaos ensues as the sisters sign marriage contracts in the presence of their newly intended husbands, only to hear military strains in the distance that can only mean that their fiancés have returned from the front. In a panic, they urge the Albanians to hide, and the men rush off simply to discard their disguises and appear back on the scene as their real selves, supposedly returning from battle. The sisters ask forgiveness when the trickery comes to light, and, of course, receive it. Don Alfonso proclaims that he hopes the young lovers have learned a lesson, and the curtain falls.

It’s tempting to save a stock paragraph regarding Conductor Antony Walker and his orchestra, because his results are about as uniformly excellent as is humanly possible. Last night he brought out the subtle beauties of Mozart’s exquisite orchestration in fine fashion, and at times it sounded as if the players made their instruments “sing” just as beautifully as the vocalists on the stage. The chorus has little to do in this opera, and that little was done off stage, but again Chorus Master Mark Trawka rose to the occasion in his placement and balance of the singers behind the scenes. The two brief choral interludes were lovely, and made the listener wish for more.

0830_wedding_bells_1The attractive and talented cast did more justice to Mozart’s style of vocal writing than has been heard locally in quite a while, and it was a refreshing treat to see the various characters almost always singing to each other rather than to the audience. Sari Gruber, as Despina, was a standout. She sang the same role when Così fan tutte was last heard here in 2006, but last night she wasn’t one month away from giving birth, as she was on the former occasion. It can only be hoped that her young daughter was in the audience or behind the scenes to enjoy her mother’s excellent singing and comic antics. She was delightful throughout, and her physical and vocal “disguise” as the marriage notary made it difficult for the audience not to laugh to the point of drowning out the music.

Christopher Tiesi (Ferrando) and Hadleigh Adams (Guglielmo), each with international reputations, both made their Pittsburgh Opera debuts with success. In appearance, singing and acting, the two were more than equal to the demands of their roles. The New Zealand baritone Adams is to be commended especially for his interpretation of a role originally written for a bass. He, like most of the cast, sang with greater freedom as the production progressed, and made the most of the role in his acting as well. Tiesi proved to be an opera rarity – a tenor who can correctly sing the music of a composer who virtually ignored tenors in his works. Only in one or two spots did he briefly lapse into a more dramatic style than the music requires, and as a whole sang very well and made the most of the role’s comedic opportunities. Both men would be more than welcomed back in future productions.

Danielle Pastin (Fiordiligi) and Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella) are familiar to local opera audiences. In an opera which is predominately an ensemble piece, Holloway had the most to do in terms of sustained, solo singing, and she has made great strides in mastering Mozart’s style since she was heard here as Elvira in Don Giovanni a few years ago. Pastin sang and acted with charm and dignity, but never missed a chance to make the most of a comedic opportunity. Both women, like their male counterparts, were vivacious and in keeping with the mood of the piece, and were heartily applauded after the final curtain.

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Sir Thomas Allen made his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Don Alfonso – and also served as Stage Director. The English-born baritone, who made his operatic debut in 1969, has been a London and Munich favorite for decades, appearing in numerous roles with many opera companies the world over as well. Born in a northern mining town where the pursuit of a career in the arts raised an eyebrow or two, he is also the inspiration for the character of “Billy Elliot” in the play and film of that name. It was to be expected that such a seasoned veteran would be a master of his art, and he didn’t disappoint. The bulk of role calls for recitative and ensemble work, with a comparatively brief bit of sustained solo singing, and his masterful technique and breath conservation served him well throughout. His finest contribution was his direction of the work – the stage action was excellent.

The only disappointment was the set design of John Conklin. Both acts took place on a sandy beach that presented on more than one occasion a challenge for the predominately barefooted singing actors. A sort of plywood platform served for scenes set by the librettist as taking place in the sisters’ home. The backdrop throughout was a beautifully painted sky, from which curious paintings and other objects descended – half-way – to the stage at times. Even the clever lighting design of Cindy Limauro couldn’t clarify the rhyme or reason of the peculiar set. Judging by the audience response throughout, however, attention was focused on the singing, acting and playing of the orchestra, and the production was received with a great deal of enthusiasm.

The opera will be repeated on November 10, 13, and 15, and patronage is highly recommended.

For full production, cast, schedule, and ticket information, please visit https://www.pittsburghopera.org

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.

“The Artistic Team” for Così fan tutte

Antony Walker, Conductor; Sir Thomas Allen, Stage Director; John Conklin, Set Designer; Gail Astrid Buckley, Costume Designer; Cindy Limauro, Lighting Designer; Marcus Dilliard, Original Lighting Designer; James Geier, Hair & Makeup Designer; Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager.

Production photos by David Bachman Photography.